Q&A: He'd Like to Throw Out the Word "Waste"

Yale's Thomas Graedel talks about the science of industrial ecology

No living thing exists independently in nature. Hence, the allure of ecology, the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment. Well, the same kind of rules seem to apply in business, and they are the focus of a nascent academic discipline known as industrial ecology. Its practitioners study how materials and energy flow among industries and consumers. They also dissect how these flows alter the environment. And they consider ways to change economic, regulatory, and social factors to optimize the use of resources and minimize pollution.

Barely a decade old, the field is shaping a new generation of planners, engineers, and manufacturing designers around the world, according to Thomas E. Graedel, a steering committee member of the newly formed International Society of Industrial Ecology. Based at Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, ISIE includes academics and policymakers from Europe, the U.S., and Japan, along with a growing number of companies, including AT&T and Motorola Inc. The society's goal is to put into practice an integrated model of industrial activity that produces both sound financial results and cleaner industry (www.yale.edu/is4ie/).

BusinessWeek contributor Petti Fong recently spoke with Graedel at his New Haven office about the best ways to get policymakers and businesses thinking bigger about green issues.

Q: It seems like a simple leap from plain old recycling to industrial ecology. Why hasn't the discipline evolved more quickly?

A: Traditionally, students who are trained in technology are not trained in the environmental sciences. It's an educational barrier that comes from the way we have trained our scientists and engineers over decades. We have to change the way engineers think about the environment. For one, we have to throw away the word "waste." Rather, [we should] think of it as residual resources. There is potential value in all these waste streams that may not have been realized yet.

Q: Why is the ecology idea catching on now?

A: The interaction between a manufacturing operation and the environment is changing. Before, you would go to the end of a project and look at the regulations, then put in whatever control systems you need to reduce the pollution, lower power consumption, or whatever met the code. The people doing that typically have no interaction with people designing or operating the process. In industrial ecology, we say: Go to the beginning of the pipe and design the systems so we can accomplish our corporate goals and minimize the impact on the environment at the end of the pipe.

Q: Are there any examples where the ideas of industrial ecology have been put in practice?

A: Kalundborg, an industrial complex in Denmark, has four main tenants--an oil refinery, a power plant, a wallboard plant, and a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Between these four, and a number of smaller companies, they share heat, electric power, sulfur, cooling water, steam, and other residues. Each flow-stream arrangement--there are around 30--was undertaken because it financially benefited the producer and the consumer.

Q: It sounds good for the companies. But what are the benefits to consumers?

A: Consumers will see products that are better--more environmentally responsible in use, less energy intensive, easily maintainable, and upgradable--while being otherwise equal in performance to older products.

Q: Why is it in the interests of industries to cooperate with each other and organize along ecological lines?

A: More and more we are finding that customers are asking industries for green-designed products. Ford Motor Co., for example, requires all of its components suppliers to provide environmentally responsible products. The second motivation is liability. A company can avoid future liability exposure if it uses a [certain] chemical or the like. A third driver is that a lot of design people today are in their 20s and 30s. They grew up with recycling baskets. They know there should be an awareness, and they already have the motivation. And the last reason is, stocks of companies that pay attention to their impact on the environment do better.

Q: Why is the U.S. behind Europe in putting industrial ecology into practice?

A: Europe is short of space and realizes it has little place to keep throwing things away. It is searching for alternatives. For North America, the situation in most places is not so obvious.

Q: Can industrial ecology be applied to existing industries, or must you start from scratch?

A: You don't have to start from scratch--though you get the biggest gains from doing so. If you have an existing set of plants, you probably can't make major changes because of the high cost of replacing the whole thing. But you can make gains in packaging. Or you can make changes in things that are easier to recycle. You can change manufacturing methods--for example, by reusing chemicals or recycling metal trimmings instead of paying to dispose of them. Over the longer term, these easy, up-front savings diminish.

Q: Recycling is one part of industrial ecology. What materials are already heavily recycled?

A: We're doing very well with a lot of metals. Something like 75% of the lead we use comes from recycling because we mostly use it in big chunks--like in car batteries. Because it has toxic properties, lead is monitored. When we finish using a battery, we usually take it someplace and they recycle it. We also do pretty well with copper, which is 50% to 60% recycled.

Q: Will government be a factor in moving industrial ecology from concept to reality?

A: When we're at the end of the pipe--where the waste comes out--governments have a major role. They set the standards, and companies respond. But beyond that, governments aren't going to be the main players in this. If you're trying to do better, it has to come from the designers. Governments could support the process by making it easier to use some of the [recycled] resources, by setting up purchasing programs. Governments tend to subsidize the use of virgin resources, which makes it difficult economically to get the recycling as big as it could be. For new and recycled materials, we need to look at the resource flow and not favor one source or resource over another.

Q: How will ISIE help promote this process?

A: There was--and still is--a big educational challenge. We have generations of people who are not used to thinking of technology and the environment at the same time. For many reasons, people are now realizing the planet doesn't have infinite resources. One way to get a handle on that is to think more carefully about how to use materials and resources. ISIE will help do this by encouraging research and providing a network to exchange techniques and teaching materials.

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